Prince Valiant may be a mere newspaper comic-strip character, but in his heyday, he commanded such popularity that the (fictional) birth of his first son, Arn, on Aug. 30, 1947, made the (real) birth-announcement columns in hundreds of papers across the country.
“Prince Valiant,” a Sunday strip launched in 1937 by the great Canadian-born illustrator Hal Foster (1892-1982), continues to have a fiercely loyal — if aging — following after nearly three-quarters of a century. But its future is less than certain given the economic woes and changing readership of newspapers.
The release of “Prince Valiant, Vol. 1: 1937-1938,” the first in a new series of gorgeously printed, hardcover Valiant collections from Fantagraphics Books (www.fantagraphics.com), served as a bittersweet reminder of the century-long rise and eventual decline of a great American art form, the comic strip.
Valiant tells the ongoing story of a knight of the Round Table, from his childhood through his early adventures, his marriage, his family life, and his role as a high-ranking official at King Arthur’s court.
Armed with the Singing Sword, twin to Arthur’s Excalibur, Val defends the defenseless.
“At its height, in the 1950s, (the strip) was carried by 550 newspapers and had a fan base of over 25 million readers,” said Foster’s biographer Brian Kane, author of “Hal Foster: Prince of Illustrators, Father of the Adventure Strip.”
Times have changed. Today, “you have a generation that has grown up without newspapers,” said Rick Norwood, publisher of Comics Revue magazine and a mathematics professor at East Tennessee State University. “None of my students reads the paper. ... If they did, they would tremendously enjoy” Valiant.
One wonders if the name Prince Valiant means anything to Generations Y and Z beyond the name of the oddball haircut Jessica Alba sported earlier this year.
“Ultimately, (the strip) is doomed,” Norwood said. “But ultimately, we are all doomed,” he added, laughing.
Kane said Valiant already has survived longer than most other continuity strips — comics that have one continuous storyline from their inception. And, he said, its classic, realistic illustration style has all but disappeared.
“Comics originally were vehicles to sell the paper,” he said. “If you didn’t subscribe to a Hearst paper, you wouldn’t get Prince Valiant.” Today, editors treat them as liabilities, as extra features that eat up space and revenue dollars, Kane added.
The strip demands enough space to accommodate its sweep and detail, but to cut costs, many newspapers have reduced the size available from the full page of its prime to a half, quarter, or even smaller part of a page.
If the strip does die, it will still be remembered as one of the finest and most influential forms of graphic arts, and its creator will become part of art history, said Valiant’s current illustrator, Gary Gianni, a Chicago-based painter who has produced the strip — with writing partner Mark Schultz — since 2004.
“Foster was one of the great — arguably the greatest — comic-strip artists of all time, and his work should be hanging in museums,” said Gianni, 54. “The detail and good figure drawing and interesting compositions in Prince Valiant set the gold standard” for all comics art.
The newspaper version of IMAX
Harold “Hal” Rudolf Foster was born Aug. 18, 1892, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1919, Foster moved to America to study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. After a job in advertising, he won a commission to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan tales as an illustrated strip. His work on Tarzan so impressed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst that Hearst gave Foster the rare chance to create an entirely new comic.
Norwood said that, as a teen, he had met Foster. “I was young and gushing. I told him, ’You are the greatest artist in comics,”’ Norwood said. “He had a sly smile on his face. He said, ’There’s more than one person in this room who is of the same opinion.”’
Donald Ault, founder of the University of Florida’s Interdisciplinary Comics Studies program, said that, while many comic strips refer to current events, Foster stayed away from politics. “He wanted to evoke a timeless world open to all possibilities,” Ault said.
But not even Foster could resist sending up the Germans during World War II, with a storyline that had Val fighting Huns.
And, boy, did it make waves: The strip got Hitler so angry that whenever Germany overran a country, he had Prince Valiant canceled in every newspaper.
In 1971, Foster handed off the strip’s illustration to his protege, painter and illustrator John Cullen Murphy. Foster continued to write it until 1979, when Murphy’s son, Cullen Murphy, took over as Valiant’s scrivener.
Foster “created 39 1/2 years worth of Tarzan and Prince Valiant strips without missing one deadline,” Kane said. “It’s an amazing achievement.”
The Murphys continued the strip until shortly before the elder Murphy’s death in 2004.
Now 56 and with three children of his own, the younger Murphy said that working on Valiant was a young fan’s dream come true.
“I started reading it when I was 6 or 7,” he said. “At the time, it appeared as a full, broadsheet newspaper page. It was glorious. It was the newspaper version of IMAX.”
Murphy, an editor-at-large for Vanity Fair, said Valiant’s broad appeal wasn’t difficult to understand.
“The strip was real, unlike a lot of adventure strips,” including Flash Gordon, “which were entirely fantastical,” he said. Val has been firmly based in real life: For all his virtues, he has shortcomings and makes mistakes.
“And it brought up things about real life: Conflicts between good and evil, conflicts between the rich and the poor, conflicts between the powerful and powerless.”
Murphy, who is one of eight children, connected with Valiant’s family life.
“Prince Valiant has a significant family. A wife, (five) children, and even grandchildren. The interplay of family members was a big part of the strip.”
Prince Valiant’s unique visual style is immediately recognizable. Unlike most comics, which have word balloons, it employs a classically composed action scene accompanied by a chunk of text.
“Prince Valiant is the comic strip that is the exception to all the rules, because it’s not really a comic strip,” M. Thomas Inge, author of “Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip,” said with a laugh. “At least not in the traditional sense.”
Inge, who teaches English and humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., said Foster’s strips looked more like book illustrations than comics.
The visual tradition inaugurated by Foster sometimes weighs on his successor, Gianni, who said that, while he tries “not to be a slave to” the conventions Foster introduced, he feels a keen sense of responsibility to his artistic forebear.
“We are looking for ways to respect the past and yet give the readers something that they haven’t seen before,” he said.
His partner, Schultz, said that recently they have begun exploring what middle age might mean to Prince Valiant. (The comic strip is 72 years old, but Prince Valiant, who seems to age in dog years, is only in his mid-40s.)
“He’s having a mid-life crisis,” Schultz laughs. “His marriage (to Aleta) is less than perfect. And he’s always getting in trouble with the wife because he keeps leaving her and the kids behind to have adventures.”
How long will Valiant and other comic strips last?
Robert Harvey, comics editor at King Features Syndicate, which owns Valiant, said there was no cause to panic.
“There’s no denying that newspapers are not the profit centers they’ve been for a hundred years,” he said. But he pointed out that Valiant’s circulation is healthy — it is carried by 350 newspapers — and has been stable since the 1980s.
He said the syndicate was making inroads delivering its comics online.